Buffalo Trace Distillery offers several different tours. One of our first distillery tours highlighted the traditional Buffalo Trace Tour led by none other than the famous Freddie Johnson. With bourbon's rise in popularity, it's nearly impossible to snag a tour at this historic distillery. But like I shared in my Kentucky Bourbon Trail tips, sometimes good things come to those who wait (or get waitlisted).
Such was the case of this instance when cancellations arose allowing us to snag this tour the day before Thanksgiving. Yes, I can only imagine the canceling couple's conversation, "You did what???!!! You wanted to go on a distillery tour the DAY BEFORE THANKSGIVING???!!! What were you thinking!!!". Whoever you are, thanks for allowing us to enjoy this tour in your stead.
One Distiller - Two Historic Distilleries
We began our tour with lunch at Bourbon on Main in downtown Frankfort, Kentucky. You can catch the full story on our lunch visit, but this is worthy of a stop even if you're not slated for a Buffalo Trace Distillery tour.
The story of Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. is truly a tale of two historic distilleries - the Old Fire Copper (O.F.C.) Distillery that later became Buffalo Trace in the early 1990s and the Old Taylor Distillery - now home to Castle & Key - just a few miles away. While many take in only the big, name-brand distilleries, Castle & Key is a hidden gem and is perhaps one of the most history-laden tours on the trail.
The Tour and Experience
After checking in at the Visitors' Center, we perused around the gift shop waiting for our tour to commence. As shared in my tips post, visiting Buffalo Trace is a great way to get your hands on allocated bourbons at a reasonable price. We weren't disappointed this day, experiencing the "Buffalo Stampede" as more bottles of Weller Special Reserve were placed on display.
We began our tour on the second floor of the Center, as our tour guide shared the story of some of bourbon's greats, including Taylor, Stagg, Weller, Van Winkle, Blanton, and Lee. Today's Old Taylor tour would showcase this visionary of the whiskey world.
Beginning as a banker, he helped with the financing of several prominent distilleries. He was also a successful farmer, raising crops and cattle. Today, you can visit his farm, now housing Ashford Stud - a thoroughbred breeding operation whose stock of stallions lead a cushy life on more than 4,000 lush Bluegrass acres. Tourists can visit (by appointment) and catch a glimpse of successful horses, including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
In 1869, Taylor dipped his toe into his own distillery - a small operation in Leestown (now part of Frankfort) which he renamed O.F.C. If Elijah Craig is considered the father of bourbon, Taylor is the father of the modern distillery. He quickly expanded and upgraded equipment and buildings. His innovations included copper fermentation tanks, state-of-the-art grain equipment, column stills and modern buildings utilized steam heating (including the warehouses).
Taylor's distillery transitioned to George Stagg in 1879, with Taylor starting over at the Old Taylor Distillery in 1887. You may also remember Taylor as a champion of quality products, seeking to bring rapid-agers - rectifiers, if you will - into public light and exposing their harmful additions to young whiskey to make it look and taste older, including the addition of molasses, tobacco spit, and kerosene. Consumers were getting sick and literally dying from this rot-gut whiskey. Led by Taylor and others in the industry, he pushed for passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 - America's first food quality legislation. It would take nearly a decade for Upton Sinclair to publish his horrific stories of the meatpacking industry leading to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration. America’s first food safety legislation was for … bourbon.
We walk past fermenters and are soon standing outside Buffalo Trace's new still house. The modern addition to the complex contains a 40-foot tall continuous column still made of copper that can produce a staggering 60,000 gallons of whiskey a day - and is a duplicate of the existing still.
Then, it’s on to the Old Taylor House is at the center of the modern distilling operations. Dating back as early as 1772, the home served as the residence for several Taylor family members, including Commodore Richard Taylor, the great-great grandfather of E.H. Taylor Jr. Commodore Taylor was a brother to Hancock Taylor who founded Leestown. One other interesting tidbit we learned is that President Zachary Taylor was the nephew of Hancock Taylor; small world.
From the Old Taylor House, we cross the drive to one of the oldest buildings on the property and the highlight of the tour, known simply as Building 14. In 2016, Buffalo Trace was starting demolition and remodeling of an old building to convert it to an event space. As tests were conducted to determine if the structure could support an elevator, workers broke through what they thought was the floor, but was instead only a cement covering over previously unknown remains of the original O.F.C. Distillery. The O.F. C. Distillery was built in 1869 and further modernized in 1873. Lightning struck in 1882 and the resulting fire destroyed much of the complex. The distillery was rebuilt in 1883. By the 1940s, however, the fermenters were considered too small and the room was filled with rubble and covered over during bourbon's dark days six decades ago.
Following the initial discovery, archaeologist Nick Laracuente was consulted to oversee the unearthing. As he began the dig, he discovered there wasn't a single distillery waiting to be discovered - there were three versions of the building. Buried under the debris, the true Tutankhamun moment was the discovery of some of Taylor's square copper fermentation tanks that were fundamental to his modern distillery of the day. A few have been restored and subsequently used for some exclusive bourbons slated for future release. Plenty of relics from the early days of distilling were uncovered, including tools, pottery, plenty of copper fixtures, and an original Taylor whiskey barrel from 1899.
As we took it all in, it was also interesting to hear about the building's ties to George Dickel. While National Prohibition ended in 1933, Tennessee - home to Dickel - remained dry until 1939. During those years, the Dickel brand was sold to industry conglomerate Schenley and the brand was produced at their O.F.C. Distillery as George Dickel Cascade Straight Kentucky Bourbon.
We made a quick stop to catch a glimpse of the adjacent Kentucky River, site of the original "buffalo trace" where herds once made their crossing. It's incredible to see that this building has stood the test of time (and floods).
Next, we complete the tour by taking one of the original warehouses constructed by Taylor - Warehouse C across from the gift shop. Warehouse C is also a bonded warehouse, adhering to the Taylor-sponsored Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Once inside, we inhale deeply, enjoying the charred oak and sweet aromas of the Angels' share.
No tour would be complete without a "Taste of the Trace", including Wheatley Vodka, Buffalo Trace, Weller Special Reserve, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream, and Freddie's Root Beer (a nod to Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame member Freddie Johnson and star of the documentary Neat).
Wheatley Vodka: While I'm not a vodka drinker, this is a vodka that a bourbon drinker would like. Made from wheat and distilled a whopping ten times,this is soft, gentle, crisp and surprisingly steeped in vanilla. Wow!
Buffalo Trace: Made from BT's low-rye mash bill (thought to contain < 10% rye), this blend of grains is also used in George T. Stagg, Eagle Rare, and E.H. Taylor. A very traditional bourbon, this delivers a solid nose and palate with vanilla, brown sugar, and a hint of mint.
Weller Special Reserve: This wheated bourbon made by Buffalo Trace carries an identical blend of grains thought to be used in the rare Pappy Van Winkle line. I normally enjoy Weller and it has scored well when pitted against other wheated bourbons. On this day, though, it paled compared to Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare. Generally this comes with loads of vanilla, spice and oak with an exceptional smoothness.
Eagle Rare: Oh, how I wish this bourbon wasn't, quite, so "rare". A ten-year version of traditional Buffalo Trace bourbon, this is a smooth sipper with vanilla, caramel, leather, and oak nicely balanced against each other. Today, this was our top pick.
Buffalo Trace Bourbon Cream and Freddie's Root Beer: No trip to Buffalo Trace is complete without their famous 30-proof bourbon cream, a combination of Buffalo Trace and cream. Delicious in its own right, it's decadent when added to coffee, or in this case, root beer to concoct a sinful "adult root beer float". If you've only sampled Irish liqueurs to date, you're missing out on an incredible experience for the senses.
The Old Taylor Tour was a hit for us. We began the day with a great lunch at Bourbon on Main and finished by taking in the jaw-dropping Bourbon Pompeii. Be sure to add this tour to your next visit to the Bluegrass.